Dear HJ, on your 5th birthday

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Dear HJ,

Today you are 5 years old.

It was late in the evening on a humid August night when we first heard about you, our baby girl. You were two months old. Your father and I had just returned from an exhilarating trip to the border of North Korea and China, where we had spent two weeks meeting North Korean refugees and orphans face to face, seeing with our own eyes a world which had previously only been told to us in stories. I was on the phone with my mother, the grandmother you now know as Nee.

"There’s a baby girl at your grandfather's orphanage,” my mother said. “Do you know someone who would want to adopt her?"

When my mother said those words, “There’s a baby girl…” it was as if the skies had opened, and God had dropped you directly into our laps.

I had called my mother that night with just one purpose. I wanted to know if she could help us with the process of adopting a baby. You see, Hyun Jung, your daddy and I, we had always wanted to adopt. Not only because it seemed like it was in our blood, with my grandfather running an orphanage in Nonsan, South Korea, and my uncle on the other side of the family having started an orphanage in Seoul, but because something inside of us seemed to know about you long before you were born, and maybe long before we were even born. But it was only after our trip overseas that summer of 2008, that we thought it was time to take the first real step towards adoption. And of course, it could not have been any other way, for the summer of 2008 was the summer you were born.

There are certain decisions in life that you feel all your days have been leading up to, moments that some may call fate, or God's will, or sheer and amazing coincidence. That day that we found about you, Hyun Jung, was one of our moments. For before I even had a chance to ask my mother the question that had been running through my mind all day like the pounding of a relentless summer storm, “Can you help us adopt?” she had beat me to it.

“There’s a baby girl,” she had said.

When I heard those words spoken to me, I was sitting in complete darkness in the corner of our bedroom closet, and heavy, fat tears began falling from my eyes, tears not of sadness, but of absolute certainty that you were our daughter.

I repeated the question to my mother in hushed tones. “Do I know someone who would like to adopt? Do I know someone?”

I told her, “Yes, I do. I know someone who would like to adopt.”

After hanging up the phone, I emerged from the closet with tears still in my eyes and told your daddy we were going to Korea.

The first day we met you was the day after Thanksgiving. You were just about to turn five months old. We were coming straight from a 15 hour flight, a sleepless night at the airport hotel, and a 2.5 hour bus ride to the orphanage. It was late morning, and there was a clear, quiet stillness in the air when we climbed the steps to the newly constructed brick building where you had been growing up without us -- we were strangers to you, but to us you were a dream and a life that we had been waiting for our entire lives. The heavy double doors swung open, and suddenly there you were, little arms flailing about in a red and white cotton outfit that was too big for you, your round eyes, bright and curious, and what little hair you had pulled back with a tiny plastic barrette. I instinctively reached out my arms to you, wanting to swoop you up right then and there, but I held back, seeing you snuggled so protectively in your caregiver's arms.

"Hyun Jung," I said tentatively, "We're here."

It seemed that you smiled back, a little smile without any recognition of who we were, but a smile, nonetheless. There really wasn't much you had to do to win my heart that day. From the day I had heard about you, I was already yours.

Later that night, we watched you from afar, as your caregiver wrapped you up as tightly as possible on her back in a soft, yellow baby blanket, singing Korean lullabies to you as she walked up and down the stairs to put you to sleep. She held you close every night that first year of your life, and she would have raised you as her own if she was not already 60 years old and had destiny not brought you to us. The building where you were staying with her had been conceived as a new enterprise of my grandfather’s, a home for elderly Korean men and women who had no place to live and no family to take care of them. Although the orphanage dormitories next door housed over 80 children from ages 3 to 17, this new building where you were living housed no one at the time except you, your caregiver, and my grandmother. It was as if the entire building had been created for you. There were no other babies at the orphanage. Only you. So much time had passed since the orphanage had had a newborn baby that they could not remember how many years it had been. A crib had to be purchased, and sat unused in the corner, while you slept soundly on your caregiver’s bed, and she slept on the floor, to make sure you didn’t fall.

The orphanage, Eden Children’s Home, was founded by your great-grandfather after the Korean War, to take in Korean orphans, many of whom had lost their parents in the escape from the North to the South. My grandmother tells me often of the story of their own escape. How she had two sons, one sick with polio, and how she had been pregnant with my mother, riding a train to Seoul while her husband went ahead to secure a safe place for them all. She never fails to tell me how they almost didn't make it, and then where would all our lives be?

To such grandparents who had survived the war, nothing was impossible. Perhaps that is why your great-grandfather did not think twice about all that would have to be overcome to adopt you into our family. Many people, important people, told us it couldn't be done.

“I'm sorry. A child that is already in an orphanage cannot be adopted,” they told us.

“I’m sorry. I understand that you and your husband are of Korean descent, but that has no bearing on our decision.”

“I’m sorry, I understand that your grandfather is 83 years old and has been running the orphanage for over 50 years, but, a child in an orphanage cannot be adopted internationally.”

"The birth mother must have legally relinquished her rights."

There is not much that we know about your birth mom, but this much we do know. She loved you very much. We know her name and her age when she gave birth to you. And soon we discovered, through your grandfather’s persistence, that she had indeed gone to the adoption agency before you were born to fill out the necessary paperwork to begin the adoption process. She had gone to the very adoption agency in Korea that was linked to the one adoption agency that was willing to work with us in America.

So we went, on that day after Thanksgiving, to meet you for the first time, our baby girl. I didn’t know what was worse, waiting for you on the other side of the world, or knowing what it felt like to hold you in my arms, and then having to let you go. The adoption process between two governments an ocean apart in geography and culture could sometimes be fickle, and we didn't want there to be any doubt that every precaution and law had been followed and respected. So we continued to wait. Every moment we spent with you during that first visit kept us going through the long winter months when we were apart.

In the spring, when the cherry blossoms began blooming, their white petals softly raining down on the gravel in the courtyard of the orphanage, I went again to see you. I could not bear to be away from you another day. You were 9 months old. You were starting to pull yourself up to stand, you were laughing, you had four little teeth, your hair had grown just a tad longer, and you still liked being held facing out, so you could see the world all around you. You didn't say much, but you made your desires clearly known, pointing a chubby, stiff arm in whatever direction you wanted to be taken. As much as I wanted to tuck you on my hip and walk right into Incheon Airport with you, it was just another visit, and we had to wait, again.

And really, we were still getting to know each other. You let me give you a bottle in the middle of the night, and you ventured to lay your head on my shoulder while I rocked you back and forth. You let me dress you in a green flowered dress on Easter morning, and take picture after picture with you in front of the deep-rooted mok ryun tree that is your great-grandfather’s pride, but at the end of the week, I had to go home, again, without you. Before I left for the airport, I placed you gingerly on top of my suitcase and wheeled you around the entryway of the orphanage building where I had first met you, and you looked up at me with an uncertain little smile, still wondering who we were to each other.

At last, in the humid, oppressive heat of a rainy, Korean summer, I arrived at the orphanage a final time - to bring you home. They moved us into a small blue house in the back of the orphanage. In the past, it had served as a bath house for the other children, and now it was to be our makeshift home. The old linoleum floors were soon covered with your baby toys and blankets, and they brought us a brand-new washing machine with fancy buttons and Korean words that I didn’t know how to read. They didn’t believe in using dryers much at the orphanage. They told me it was better to let the clothes breathe in the fresh air, so I did my best to hang your little Korean dresses on a clothesline outside our doorway, though it hung in the shadow of the girls’ dormitory next door. I learned how to heat the water before bathing you, and at night we watched Korean dramas on TV before you fell asleep in my arms. I fed you rice and seaweed soup, your favorite, at every meal, but when I gave you eggs and toast for breakfast I was scolded for not giving you something more substantial. The orphanage cook would then proceed to fry you a small fish, mackerel, and I would pick out all the bones with slippery metal chopsticks and feed you the morsels with my fingers.

Through all of this, your daddy was still waiting in the U.S, now for both of us to come home. No one knew how long it would be before the final visas were approved.

I forged ahead anyway, putting you in a rickety borrowed stroller, pushing you over the uneven concrete sidewalks and the busy streets of Nonsan, walking with you to a little bakery one day, another day taking you to visit a friend and her baby who lived in the apartment across the street. We walked beyond the gates of the orphanage as often as possible. We took you to a bustling strawberry festival, to city gardens, and rural mountainsides, all the while still waiting for the final call that we were free to go.

The hottest day of the summer, the last day of August, as was the tradition in Korea, we took you to a village restaurant to have freshly cooked chicken soup, served bubbling hot in earthenware bowls. We sat on the floor, as is the custom there, and I tried my best to protect your little hands from the boiling soup and the rows and rows of tiny side dishes, laid out temptingly for you to touch.

When the heat had finally abated, and the children at the orphanage were back in school, and the relief of an autumn breeze was slowly settling in, your daddy decided that he missed us too much not to visit one more time. He came on Labor Day weekend, and everyone remarked again at how much you looked like him, both of you with your dark, long-lashed eyes and oval faces. You even suffered alike from eczema due to the sweltering heat. But to you, he was still a stranger from America, and you only stopped crying when he tickled you and threw you up in the air and made you breathless with laughter in that way that only daddies can do. The day he left was another bittersweet goodbye; I so longed to just walk onto the plane with you and him, together as it should have been all along.

But this time, we didn’t have to wait much longer. Only ten days after your daddy had left, we finally received the news. The visa had been approved! We were free to go home. As soon as I heard, I scooped you up and danced around the back room where we had been biding our time, your hand enclosed in mine. Your daddy came back the very next day. All at once, what had seemed like an endless wait was over almost too quickly. Our goodbyes to everyone at the orphanage were short and fleeting, unable to express the significance of all that you were leaving behind, and both the gratitude and relief we felt at finally being able to take you with us this time.

I hardly slept the night before we were to leave the orphanage. Mercifully unaware of how much would change the next morning, you slept peacefully. The day was September 21st, 2009. You were 14 months old. In the early dawn hours, we packed your precious memories of the first year of your life, the well-worn clothes you could still fit into, the Korean pacifiers and bottles and rice cakes that you would miss otherwise, and the heavy, leather-bound dol album, the photos from your first birthday, which we had missed, but your great-grandfather had taken care to preserve in painstakingly arranged professional photos of you crying in your beautiful Korean hanbok.

We piled all our belongings into the orphanage's white van, the one that had driven us countless times to the bus terminal and back, but this time, we were leaving without knowing when any of us would be back. There wasn't even a car seat for you, things are different there in Korea, so I held you extra close in my lap as you placed your little hand on the window while the crowd gathered in the courtyard.

"Bring her back when she's a little grade-school girl, before she forgets all her Korean," my grandfather told us.

“Will she only eat pizza and hamburgers in America?” the other children asked.

Your caregiver was too emotional to come outside to see you go. She had already said her goodbyes to you the night before, giving you a children's Bible written in Korean and English, a navy blue satin book bag to use when you started school, and two long Korean nightgowns in the softest cotton that you still like to wear. My grandfather gave you two tiny gold rings and a gold bracelet, so delicate that they bend at the slightest touch. The workers tried hard to be cheerful, and the other children smiled and waved, but there was a heaviness that lingered because you were so loved. You were the youngest, and the favorite, no one could deny.

And this time, we really did walk with you straight into Incheon Airport. I still couldn’t help looking over my shoulder to see if someone would stop to interrogate us, as if to say, "Where are you taking her? And is she really yours?" No one gave us a second glance, but I held the thick manila envelope of paperwork from the adoption agency as though it were a shield. I suppose we looked no different than the hundreds of other Korean families wandering around at their respective gates, waiting not quite patiently for their boarding call.

Well, I take that back. You stood out a little, Hyun Jung, the way you liked to be held with your hands on the handle of our big luggage cart, directing it back and forth, and angling your body in just the right way so that you could see everything and everyone around you as you began this long journey home.

15 hours later, we arrived in Chicago, received by balloons and welcome signs, and a whole other world eager to meet you. You had been an angel on the flight. Sleeping eight hours straight in the bassinet in which you barely fit, and quietly eating your favorite rice cakes and drinking your sweet Korean formula in your familiar Korean bottles. We brought you straight home, and I snuggled in next to you in your new big girl bed in the room that we had painted a pale green, with the sheer butterfly curtains hanging from the windows. Exhausted as we were, this time, neither of us could sleep. Whether it was jet lag or the anticipation of beginning the rest of our lives together, or both, no one knew. How long had we been waiting for this moment? And now, you were finally here.

Hyun Jung, when you first came home, we called you Hyunnie. Now, you always remind us that you like to be called Chloe, your American name that you use in school. It’s a fitting name, meaning verdant and blooming, as is your middle name, Eden, meaning delight. Your favorite part of the day is when your daddy comes home and kisses you and lifts you high in the air. You sometimes like to boss your little sister around. And thanks to the instruction of your Nee and Ha-ji, your grandfather here in America, you haven’t forgotten all your Korean.

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